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January 27, 2013, Sunday

Erdoğan considering Shanghai Five

Turkey and the European Union have failed to make substantial progress in their accession talks, pushing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to once again say that Turkey is seriously considering seeking membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an alternative at a time when the EU’s future looks increasingly dim.

During a televised program aired on Kanal 24 late on Friday, Erdoğan was asked whether Turkey has forgotten about the EU process. He replied that Turkey is now seeking alternative options amid eroding hopes for the EU process due to adamant opposition to Turkey’s membership by a number of EU member countries.

Erdoğan said Turkey is seriously considering becoming part of the SCO. “The fact is that we have not yet given up on the EU process. Egemen Bağış makes a presentation on [Turkish-EU] relations at every Cabinet meeting. He regularly travels throughout Europe,” Erdoğan said, noting the government’s continued interest in the EU despite the pessimistic atmosphere surrounding the country’s EU bid.

Erdoğan added: “If we get into the SCO, we will say good-bye to the European Union. The Shanghai Five is better -- much more powerful. Pakistan wants in. India wants in as well. If the SCO wants us, all of us will become members of this organization.”

When asked to clarify whether the Shanghai Five is an alternative to the EU, he said, “The Shanghai Five is better and more powerful, and we have common values with them.”

In response to another question -- why we don’t say good-bye to the EU now -- Erdoğan said that the country has a relationship with the EU, and without first finding alternatives and preparing the ground to say good-bye to the EU, it would be too risky. Thus, we need to prepare the ground first.

Turkey was accepted as a dialogue partner by the SCO at its annual summit in Beijing on June 7.

Many Western observers think that Erdoğan’s statement was no more than muscle-flexing for the EU. However, Turkish observers familiar with how Erdoğan thinks do not share this view. One veteran commentator, Cengiz Çandar, thinks Erdoğan is quite serious in considering the Shanghai Five as a strategic alternative.

I hold a view similar to that of Çandar. Indeed, Erdoğan was serious when he brought up the Shanghai Five as an alternative to the EU. There are at least two pieces of evidence that support this. He did not bring up this issue as a deliberate policy proposal to appear strong before the EU, however. He simply answered spontaneously when faced with a spontaneous question from Professor Beril Dedeoğlu during the TV interview.  Even Dedeoğlu was so surprised by the answer that she tried to correct Erdoğan, but Erdoğan further insisted on his view. Thus, the TV interview itself shows that Erdoğan is serious in his thinking.

The second piece of evidence that indicates Erdoğan is serious about this view is that this is not the first time he has brought this issue to a public debate. Right after his visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin back in July, Russian and Turkish press indeed reported this -- despite denial of the claim by Turkish authorities, who said, “Erdoğan was joking when he asked Putin whether they would accept Turkey as a member of the Shanghai Five.” Now Erdoğan himself has confessed that he indeed asked such a thing of Putin.

At that time, the opposition took the question as a joke and did not think he was serious. For example, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) parliamentary group Deputy Chairman Mehmet Şandır told Today’s Zaman that he believes Erdoğan’s words should be taken as a joke. “That such an important issue was talked about in such an informal way as Erdoğan mentioned clearly shows the [low level of] importance Erdoğan attaches to the comments,” Şandır maintained.

Just like the MHP, representatives of the main opposition party Republican People’s Party (CHP) did not think joining the Shanghai Five would be a good idea, either. Faruk Loğoğlu, a CHP deputy chairman and a former ambassador, said that organizations such as the SCO cannot be an alternative to the EU for Turkey. Loğoğlu believes Erdoğan may have made the statement just to please Russia, possibly in an effort to decrease the tension that seems to have built up between the two countries regarding the crisis in Syria. “Turkey has become dependent on Russia in the area of energy,” he told Today’s Zaman on July 26, adding that there would be nothing wrong with Turkey taking a role as a dialogue partner in the SCO, as it is today.

However, it turns out that Erdoğan was not joking at that time; nor is he this time, either. Is it a good idea to consider the Shanghai Five as an alternative to the EU? I don’t think so.

His problematic statements just show that Erdoğan has never understood the importance of the EU for Turkey and Turkish people. With this mentality, he has shown that instead of pursuing democratic standards, advanced human rights and democratization, he is searching for a partnership that will make Turkey more powerful, not more democratic. And this runs completely against the values of the EU.

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